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The shower scene in Silver Linings Playbook

2013 March 18

When Hitchcock’s Psycho came out in 1960, its shower scene was instantly a sensation. Three minutes and fifty cuts, it broke rules previously sacrosanct: for starters, coming about forty minutes into the film, it killed off Janet Leigh, the film’s protagonist – with whom the audience had been invited to identify from those first opening shots of her carefully nondescript underwear. Not only this, its fifty cuts served the purpose of (in the director’s own words) ‘transferring the menace from the screen into the mind of the audience’. Viewers were no longer the blonde; they were the psycho. An uncomfortable shift.

psychoIn Silver Linings Playbook, the menace is all in in the mind – it’s a film about mental illness. It is presumably for this reason that director David O. Russell has chosen to reproduce that shower scene in it – though, represented via a series of individual flashbacks, he’s added some more visceral cuts into it, as well as a middle-aged professor who’s having an affair with this Norman Bates’s wife.

The film follows Pat (Bradley Cooper), who is bipolar, and his quest to get his marriage back together after returning home from a psychiatric hospital. We learn that his most recent breakdown was precipitated on discovering his wife Nikki in the aforementioned shower with a colleague; he attacked the man, which brought him up against assault charges and eventually landed him in the institution. Back home at the beginning of the film, Pat wants to get Nikki, and his marriage, back – despite his continuing mood swings, refusal to take medication and restraining order.

Then he meets Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), a young woman whose husband has recently died in traumatic circumstances. She is similarly Troubled (she’s been fired for sleeping with all her co-workers) and they hit it off, in a vague way. She agrees to take a letter to Nikki if Pat will partner her in a dance competition.

The inevitable happens.

poster for Silver Linings PlaybookIf you listen to Hollywood, there are dance competitions happening in every small town, every three minutes, just waiting for someone to do some self-actualisation through dance – as in dance movie stalwarts such as Strictly BallroomFlashdance or, its British equivalent, the Arts Council-funded Billy Elliot. This one brings plenty of opportunities for personal development, which – though not so pronounced as the ur-dance movies – is actually why Pat agrees to do it: he wants to prove to Nikki that he has changed, and grown, since the shower incident. Cinematic history tells him this is the way to do it.

But nonetheless, in Silver Linings Playbook, development through dance is not really the point: the dancing pops up towards the second half of the film, and while the rehearsals do force the characters to spend a lot of time doing semi-erotic stuff together, it’s not the primary impetus behind their falling in love.

Indeed, if you accept that dance in golden-era Hollywood is usually implied sex1, often in the context of romantic relationships between show-people who dance as part of their job (here, Fred Astaire tries to win Ann Miller back as his g/f by getting her to do the dance they perform on stage), you could say that Silver Linings is less about sex than it is about Feelings.

Feelings (that’s a capital F), are by contrast the preserve of the classic romcom, which – a true product of the Eighties – features extended, over-analytical examinations of the Self. It’s Hugh Grant and Woody Allen being neurotic and too self-aware; it’s realising you’re in love just in time to run down an aeroplane. It’s the power of the mind – its hopes, fears and wants – to overcome practical obstacles. And in Silver Linings Playbook, as I say, it’s all about the mind. It’s a romcom for the post-Hugh Grant generation, if you will.

Now, personally, I didn’t find the treatment of mental health as offensive as I know some did – David O. Russell has commented in interviews that he drew a lot from the experience of having a son with bipolar disorder, which does help. One thing that did bug me, though, was its pairing of a bipolar man with longstanding mental health issues with a hypersexual woman recovering from a traumatic bereavement. Pat’s problems are longstanding, but Tiffany’s troubles clearly have their origin in grief, and they happen to manifest themselves in a pattern of sexual behaviour that, as recounted, elicits visible salivation from her male companion. We might say, in fact, that in this film, there is Serious Mental Illness, and there is Sexy Mental Illness. That Pat’s initial crime puts him in the cinematic shoes of Norman Bates, whose murder is at root sexually motivated – though it is repeated here as a grotesque husband-on-lover attack – underscores this, though admittedly at one remove.

This is why the Psycho crib, for me, was a key moment – and partly because its appearance in the film is so downright weird. It parallels the dance competition trope as an interjection of popular film history, but I suppose it also draws together some of the film’s key themes: notably, though arguably ironically, psychosis (Hitchcock’s film played a major part in popularising the slang word psycho) and what you might very crudely call Hollywood ‘monster-cam’.

I suppose one reason for including the scene (something I spent a long time puzzling over) was that, by putting the audience in the eye-view of a man mid-breakdown unleashing his rage upon two people who happen to be naked (and one of them a woman) shows the terrible power of the mental threats the film explores: we see their vulnerability, and we are invited to consider the gender issues the attack brings to the surface. Within the context of the plot, it makes sense of Nikki’s need for a restraining order and perhaps even makes an ironic comment on the thigh-rubbing Hitchcock is widely accepted to have been doing throughout his own shower scene. It certainly makes you think back to the portrayal of mental illness in the deeply exploitative Psycho. In that sense, Silver Linings Playbook actually comes out reasonably well.

So, should you go and see it? I’d imagine if you were going to, you’ll have done so by now. But I think it’s worth seeing – despite those dodgy gender politics, it certainly makes you think.

  1. Considerably less ‘implied’ in the 1980s, as with the eponymous moves of Dirty Dancing. []
One Response leave one →
  1. Brindle permalink
    March 18, 2013

    I really liked the film but a few things could have been done better.
    I don’t get why Tiffany (Jen Lawrence) is attracted to Pat (Bradley Cooper). He is so self absorbed and he does not treat Tiffany particularly well. She at least has some grounding and you think she could do better than falling for the ‘Nikki obsessed’ Pat.

    I agree that Pat’s salivating at Tiffany’s description of her sexual experiences was too much an easy cheap shot by the director Russell, instead perhaps Pat could been respectful and shown that he does have an understanding side, giving Tiffany an actual reason to maybe find him attractive.

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